The Flood Narrative

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I. Multiple Source Theory

The flood narrative (Gen. 6:5-9:17) is considered by many to be the quintessential passage subject to division of sources according to the Documentary Hypothesis. Herman Gunkel called the analysis of this story “a masterpiece of modern criticism.”[1] As we will see, there are clear distinctions between seeming repetitions of pieces of the narrative. This, it is claimed, is indication of an amalgamation by a redactor of multiple sources. This essay will explore other options and will suggest that the Documentary Hypothesis is not the simplest nor most plausible explanation of the evidence.

Gordon Wenham[2] notes three main points that indicate different sources: 1) differences between the name of God used and other linguistic usages (e.g. whether the pairs of animals should be “male and female” or “husband and wife”), 2) whether Noah brought 1 pair of each animal or 7 pairs of clean animals and 1 pair of unclean animals and 3) whether the rain fell for 40 days after 7 days of waiting, or the water rose and fell for 150 days. Additionally, there appear to be repetitions of the story. Thus, we are told twice of the corruption of man (6:5, 6:11-12), the command to load the ark (7:1-3, 6:18-21), the entry to the ark (7:7, 7:13), the arrival of the flood (7:10, 7:17) and the promise of no future flood (8:21-22, 9:11-17).

What this all seems to indicate is that there were two sources for the flood with different accounts that were molded together into one complete, albeit redundant, story. This would lead one to the conclusion that the sources break down as follows:

VERSION 1 (Identified as P):
  The reason for the flood: 6:9-12
  God’s address to Noah: 6:13-22
  Entering the ark: 7:6-9
  Beginning of the flood: 7:10-12
  End of the flood: 8:1-5
  Exit from the ark: 8:15-19
  Covenant: 9: 1-17

VERSION 2 (Identified as J):
  The reason for the flood: 6:5-8
  God’s address to Noah: 7:1-5
  Entering the ark: 7:13-16
  Beginning of the flood: 7:17-24
  End of the flood: 8:6-14
  Covenant: 8:20-22

In other words, there are essentially two complete narratives of the flood that are mixed together into the biblical passage we see.

However, when one looks closer at the repetitions one notices two things: 1) the separation into two sources does not explain all of the differences between accounts and 2) the two sources occasionally defy the expectation based on the assumption upon which the separation was made. Let us look carefully at some of the differences and we will see.

1. Differences Between the Names of God

Version 1 (P) consistently uses the Divine name Elokim and Version 2 (J) uses the Tetragrammaton. Well, almost consistently. Version 1 (P) has Elokim in 6:9, 11, 12, 13, 22; 7:9; 8:1, 15; 9:1, 8, 12, 17. Version 2 (J) uses the Tetragrammaton in 6:5, 6, 7, 8; 7:1, 5, 16; 8:16, 21. However, there is one verse that uses both names: והבאים זכר ונקבה מכל בשר באו כאשר צוה אותו אלקים ויסגר יקוק בעדו “So those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in” (7:16). This throws a monkey-wrench into the neat division based on Divine names and requires one to suggest either an uncharacteristic interpolation by the conservative editor, who supposedly merely cut and pasted two accounts without bothering to combine them into one account, or the influence of one version on the other.

2. Number of Animals

There are four places in which the number of animals is listed in the flood narrative: 6:19-20, 7:2-3, 7:8-9, 7:15-16. The first (6:19-20), third (7:8-9) and fourth (7:15-16) mention only two of each type of animal, while the second (7:2-3) mentions seven (pairs) of the clean animals and two of the unclean animals. Note that if one were to attribute this difference to versions, then the third (7:8-9) should also mentions seven pairs of clean animals. It does not. One must, therefore, suggest that this portion originally had this distinction and it was removed by an editor, or it was entirely written by an editor.

It is also telling to compare the exact formulation of each list:

1. (in a Version 1 section) 6:19-20: ומכל החי מכל בשר שנים מכל תביא אל התבה להחית אתך זכר ונקבה יהיו. מהעוף למינהו ומן הבהמה למינה מכל רמש האדמה למינהו שנים מכל יבאו אליך להחיות.
“And of every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds after their kind, of animals after their kind, and of every creeping thing of the earth after its kind, two of every kind will come to you to keep them alive. “

2. (in a Version 2 section) 7:2-3: מכל הבהמה הטהורה תקח לך שבעה שבעה איש ואשתו ומן הבהמה אשר לא טהרה הוא שנים איש ואשתו. גם מעוף השמים שבעה שבעה זכר ונקבה לחיות זרע על פני כל הארץ.
“You shall take with you seven each of every clean animal, a male and his female; two each of animals that are unclean, a male and his female; also seven each of birds of the air, male and female, to keep the species alive on the face of all the earth.”

3. (in a Version 1 section) 7:8-9: מן הבהמה הטהורה ומן הבהמה אשר איננה טהרה ומן העוף וכל אשר רמש על האדמה. שנים שנים באו אל נח אל התבה זכר ונקבה…
“Of clean animals, of animals that are unclean, of birds, and of everything that creeps on the earth, two by two they went into the ark to Noah, male and female…”

4. (in a Version 2 section) 7:15-16: ויבאו אל נח אל התבה שנים שנים מכל הבשר אשר בו רוח חיים. והבאים זכר ונקבה מכל בשר באו…
“And they went into the ark to Noah, two by two, of all flesh in which is the breath of life. So those that entered, male and female of all flesh…”

Note that 1 & 2 have the phrasing of “שנים” (two) while 3 & 4 have the phrasing of “שנים שנים” (two by two). This different way of saying the same thing should be a marker for different sources. If 1 & 4 are from the same version, one would expect them to have similar phrasing. 3 also distinguishes between the clean and unclean animals, like 2 and unlike 1 & 4, but is supposed to be from a different version. Notice also that 1 & 3 mention “רמש” (creeping thing) while 2 & 4 do not. Additionally, only 2 uses the phrase “איש ואשתו” (husband and wife) while the other 3 use the phrase “זכר ונקבה”” (male and female). Not only does the Documentary Hypothesis fail to explain these anomalies, it implies that they should not be there.

3. Chronology of the Flood

The chronology of the flood, for how many days did the rain fall, is said to be a marker for different versions. Thus, Version 1 (P) has the flood lasting for 40 days (7:12, 17) and Version 2 (J) has the flood lasting for 150 days (7:24, 8:3). The difficulty with this, however, is that 7:17 is part of the second version, not the first. Adherence to the Documentary Hypothesis requires one to split verse 17 in half, attribute the first half to Version 1 (P) and the second half to Version 2 (J), and assume that the first half of the verse was inserted into the middle of a passage of Version 2 (J).

Furthermore, this entire exercise assumes that there is an inconsistency in the chronology of the flood. There actually is not. It is complicated, but it is also consistent. Wenham (p. 179) writes: “If on other grounds the presence of J and P [sources] can be demonstrated within the flood story, one might accept that two chronologies have been amalgamated. But that still leaves the problem of understanding the redactor’s chronology, which, as has often been pointed out, is quite coherent.” (See here for two approaches to the chronology.)

Not only does the chronology flow smoothly without the need to split the narrative into separate sources, it flows poetically. As we will address on a larger scale later, the chronology of the flood is strikingly symmetrical. Many modern commentators note the following chiasm of timing:

7 days of waiting for the flood (7:4)
  7 days of waiting for the flood (7:10)
    40 days of flood (7:17)
      150 days of water prevailing (7:24)
      150 days of water waning (8:3)
    40 days of waiting to send raven (8:6)
  7 days of waiting to send dove (8:10)
7 days of waiting to send next dove (8:12)

It seems that the text intentionally made the chronology complicated in order to create this chiasm that focuses on the central section of this passage.

In terms of dates, there are 6 places in which dates of varying styles are given. Tellingly, 2 of the times are during the onset of the flood (7:6, 11), 2 during the flood (8:4, 5) and 2 after the flood (8:13, 14). Of these 6 dates, 4 are in Version 1 (P) and 2 in Version 2 (J). The 2 most complete dates (7:11 בשנת שש מאות שנה לחיי נח בחדש השני בשבעה עשר יום לחדש “On the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month,” 8:13 ויהי באחת ושש מאות שנה בראשון באחד לחדש “And it came to pass in the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month”), which mark the beginning and the end of the flood and are unique in the Torah in their precise detail, are supposed to be from 2 different sources!

4. Stylistic Issues

There are also typical styles that are said to be unique to different sources. Version 1, the Priestly source, is said to be more interested in issues relating to sacrifices and detailed measurements. It is, therefore, surprising to discover that the distinctions between the clean and unclean animals and between 2 pairs of animals and 7 pairs are in the other version. Additionally, the actual sacrifices themselves are not in the version attributed to the Priestly source.

5. Conclusion

There is much more to be said on this subject. What I have pointed out should not be taken as a disproof of the reduction of the flood narratives into separate narratives. What it does is challenge the simple hypothesis originally presented by source critics. One can proceed from this challenge by either revising the hypothesis into one more complex, in which various passages throughout the narrative are identified with different sources and having been influenced by the other source, or to proposing another solution that solves the problems and does not resort to suggesting different sources for the material. Those of us with theological considerations (there is no need to deny those) certainly prefer the latter option. However, many modern scholars continue on the road of source criticism and build larger and more complex theories to explain the difficulties in the text. Wenham (p. 167) provides the following division of sources that is “widely accepted”:


This is not a simple breakdown of the text and is no longer the “masterpiece of modern criticism” that Gunkel praised so highly. Indeed, <a href=””s%20razor”>Ockham’s Razor might just point to a different explanation of the textual difficulties that led scholars to originally propose the source-critical approach to this passage. The rest of this essay will be dedicated to looking for an alternative explanation to the textual issues that source critics raise but does not suffer from the overburdened complexities that current versions of the Documentary Hypothesis contain.

There are essentially two ways in which to deal with the findings of source critics without accepting the conclusion that the passage has multiple sources… (b”n to be continued)

[1] Genesis, p. 137: “ein Meisterstuck der modernen Kritik.”
[2] Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1 pp. 167-168

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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